By Dave Werner
100,000 Hours of Practicing the Wrong Thing
What steps can you take to maintain your physical health as you pursue your education and your career?
Our culture and your work environment will have specific cumulative effects on your body during the course of your life. These effects are well understood and quite predictable.
Usually these effects are negative. We all accept, grudgingly, that as we get older we will accumulate fat, lose strength, and become less physically capable. But much of this degradation is just the additive effects from many small decisions we make. We can change the outcome. We can do better.
A key idea that you must understand is that your body is always adapting. Every minute of every day constitutes “practice”.
It is not merely the case that our muscles become weak and tight with lack of use, although that does happen, but there is a more profound effect at work.
You are becoming better at what you do. What you really do, what you mostly do – NOT what you occasionally do, or what you wish you were doing.
A person finishing a graduate degree will have accumulated 18 – 20 years of education. Making a few assumptions this adds up to nearly 20,000 hours of sitting. If you sat down and did not stand up again for 2 years and 3 months this would be around 20,000 hours. This estimate does not even include television viewing, sitting in cars, homework, sitting at a computer at home, reading, or many other things we do while sitting. You are spending more time practicing sitting than any other single thing in your life.
And you haven’t even started your career yet! 20 years of work equals 40,000 more hours of sitting, and no one just works for 20 years. The average American work span is from age 20 to the age of 65, or 45 years.
In the course of your lifetime you will easily accumulate more than 100,000 hours in the seated position.
Your body will recognize the seated position as the normal position and adapt accordingly. Your bones will lose density and become weaker. Your tendons will become smaller and weaker because the muscles they attach to have lost size and density and are not able to exert as much force. Requiring your body to control complex movement is a skill. You acquired this skill first in childhood through play, and you will lose this skill through disuse as you sit your way through adulthood.
Your body adapts to the requirements of sitting and becomes less able to deal with anything more strenuous than sitting.
There are steps you can take to minimize these problems; steps you can take to maintain, and even make progress. Change begins with small daily habits and, over time, can lead to large permanent lifestyle changes. How far you take this is up to you, but you have many more options than most people realize.
Today I am going to help you become more aware of your body. You can notice and manage the known corrosive effects of our modern culture and of your chosen careers. By learning some fundamental postures and movements, you can create a foundation for progress.
Before I get into the details of how you can start changing your habits, let me tell you about myself and how I came to be interested in this subject.
I was 17 years old when I joined the Navy and began training to be a Navy SEAL. I became a SEAL operator at the age of 18. The next 12 years of my life were spent in very strenuous military activities, both in training and combat. I did spend some time sitting, for study and for transportation, but I sat far less than most people do.
The other side of this was a lot of very heavy load bearing activity. Daily activity in the military is mostly about moving equipment around. Heavy boxes, bags and containers of gear were always in the wrong place and needing to be moved somewhere else. We loaded and unloaded equipment onto trucks, aircraft, ships, and submarines. We would load several tons of equipment and supplies for a few weeks of training, unload, set up and use the stuff, then load it all back up, and repeat the whole cycle again. For my entire military career I was either moving stuff, or supervising people moving stuff.
And, we worked out nearly every day for several hours. Physical training included running, swimming, obstacle courses, sports, and calisthenics – hours and hours of calisthenics. Often we would create combinations of these activities. In all of this military work and physical training, however, strength training was conspicuously missing. We had no structured strength training. At that time strength training was considered to be equivalent to body building, and SEALs knew that being a bodybuilder was not how to excel at what we did. No one confused bodybuilders for athletes. Most of us knew, though, that we needed to be stronger. We would get to the weight room whenever we could and do some extra strength training. The problem was that we did not know what we were doing. We did not understand how to create the outcome we needed. And, we did not understand the fairly extreme wear and tear that we were subjecting ourselves to. We all knew, of course, that we were pushing ourselves harder than normal – but that is the whole point of being a Navy SEAL, isn’t it? We were all young and invincible – bullet proof!
You may not have the same sense of invincibility that we did. Military training is designed to maximize this. But my experience suggests that all young people are somewhat delusional about the future. We underestimate the work that will be required to achieve our goals, and minimize the likelihood of problems cropping up.
And so it was in my case. After 12 years of pushing myself hard, I was broken. I had 3 ruptured lumbar disks, degenerative disk disease, sciatica, chronic pain in my low back and right leg, loss of control in my right leg, difficulty going to the bathroom, and difficulty sleeping. At my lowest point, I was unable to walk without a cane. I was given to attacks of excruciating pain in my back that would cause me to loose control and fall. Oh, and I had a painfully separated right shoulder.
What would your life be like if you could not stand up reliably? How well would you function if every moment of your day was dominated by pain? How productive would you be? How happy? This was my reality for many years. The approach and methods that I am presenting to you have come from my own journey through injury and back to health.
After I got out of the Navy, I spent the next 10 years going back to school and then working in electronics. I specialized in designing circuit boards and designing for manufacturing. This was creative work and I loved doing it. But my days were spent sitting for 8, 10, and sometimes 12 hours. Combined with my previous wear and tear, this inactivity was disastrous for me. I believed, though, that I could not be physical again. My doctors had told me that my damaged spine couldn’t take very much and I equated all physical activity with extreme physical activity.
After years of seeing the problem as outside of my control, I was able to change my perspective and find a constructive approach that allowed me to manage and improve my condition. This journey led me to starting a training practice, which eventually became more important to me than my electronics career. I have been helping people fix their movement patterns, develop useful strength, and improve their quality of life since 2002.
Lets look at steps you can take to avoid or minimize some of these problems with sitting. These are steps you can take to maintain and improve your quality of life.
Our bodies need movement and they need structural balance. Structural balance means, retaining the ability to move through the full range of motion at each joint with enough strength to have control. Without these fundamentals our basic health starts to suffer and our quality of life starts to decline. Bit by imperceptible bit our capabilities decrease. There are basic movement abilities that most of us are born with; the ability to squat, to fold at the hip, and to push and pull our shoulders through a large range of motion. These form the fundamentals. At a minimum we would like to not lose these basic abilities.
Parts of our bodies are meant to be stable. Our spine, for instance, is best equipped to handle large loads in the anatomically neutral position. Learning to create stability in that position is crucial to staying healthy. Although hip, knees, ankles, and shoulders are highly mobile they also need to be stabilized while supporting or transmitting loads. It takes practice and strength to create the necessary stability in many different positions.
Parts of our bodies are meant to be mobile. Your shoulder blades, shoulder joints, and thoracic spine work together to create an enormous range of possible motion in your upper body. The result of all this mobility is that your shoulders are not inherently stable. You need strength and skill to effectively use your many shoulder muscles. All of the work and play you would like to do depends on being able to use each of those muscles with skill. Only through regular practice is it possible to develop these essential qualities.
None of this happens while sitting.
You need to regularly move your joints through their intended ranges of motion or you will lose the ability to do so. I hope that my saying this is not controversial at all. Make no mistake – use it, or you will lose it!
Given that the need for sitting is not going away, what can you do to minimize the problems?
Lets break the problem down into two areas.
First, what are you doing while you are at work? Improve your work position and your movement habits.
1) Improve your sitting position.
Sit with good posture and use a chair that helps rather than hinders good posture. The seat of your chair should slope forward a little. Your seat should be high enough that your knees are well below your hips. Picture sitting in a saddle. In this position your hips will be somewhat open, making it more natural to sit up with good posture. Another good example is sitting on a stool at a lab bench.
2) Get up and move whenever possible.
There is no such thing as a perfect sitting position! Any position held long enough will become a problem. If you are able to reduce your sitting time by even 10%, it can make a major difference over time. Getting up to talk to a co-worker instead of e-mailing, standing up while talking to colleagues, standing while making phone calls, working at a standing desk – do what you can to change your position. Move more!
3) Stand when working as much as you can.
Try to arrange your work so that you can perform it while standing. Standing desks are great if you can get one, but don’t let the lack of an expensive piece of furniture hold you back. Be creative and find ways to stand. Again, this is not an all-or-nothing situation. Incremental changes to your daily routine can add up to real outcome changes over the long term.
4) Walk during the day whenever you can – find a way to do this.
Rethink daily habits and find ways to walk more. You don’t need to go for miles, short trips will do. Over time every small change you make will really add up. Park farther from the office, walk or ride a bike to work if you live close enough, walk to lunch, walk around the workplace more, do whatever you can to move around more.
Second, what are you doing when not at work? It is time to create a habit of getting some regular, daily, movement practice. I don’t mean working out. What I am talking about is more like easy warming up, moving your body into different positions.
The basics should include – at a minimum:
1) Squat. You should be able to squat all the way down and sit in the bottom position with both feet flat on the floor for several minutes. Try to hold at least one conversation every day in the full squat position. Your hips, knees, ankles, and low back will all thank you for spending time in this basic human position. If you can’t squat all the way down with both feet flat on the floor, you are, unfortunately, normal. There are several methods to help you get started. moveSKILL.com is a good place to start.
2) Hanging from a bar for up to a minute at a time. Human shoulders are built to move through a very large range of motion and to support our bodyweight while doing so. In our modern culture, however, we rarely call on our shoulders to do much. The entirely predictable result is that our shoulders are no longer capable of doing much. Spend some time every day hanging. Hang from a bar, a branch, rings, or anything else you want to. Don’t get too hung up (see how I did that?) on the details, just hang.
3) Lunge. Lunging is a variation of squatting, and a good way to work on building strength in one leg at a time. This type of moving helps you notice and correct strength imbalances and practice normal movement patterns. After all, one leg at a time is how you usually move.
4) Straight leg, straight back toe touch. The habits of modern living ruin our bodies. One symptom of this ruin is the inability to touch our toes. Tight hips, tight hamstrings, and inflexible spine are all to blame for this.
5) Learning to use your trunk muscles, both for movement and for stabilization. Many people are very weak in the trunk and unskilled at maintaining a stable spine. Being able to perform some slow controlled sit-ups is a start. Work up to being able to perform 30 sit-ups in one set in order to provide some minimal strength in your midsection. These must be performed with no arching in your back or jerking through the movement.
6) Abdominal pressurization. Flexing your trunk is not the best way to build trunk strength. It is merely a beginning. The next step is to develop your ability to hold your spine stable in the neutral position. Practice planks on a stable surface, then planks on an unstable surface, planks with an added load, and side planks. These will all help you overcome the negative effects of too much sitting.
I hope this helped you see some of our chronic physical problems in a new light. You are now equipped with some steps you can take to improve your quality of life. Movement and physical health are enormous subjects. But not everything is outside of our control. Small daily habit changes add up to large, long-term results. As Thomas Edison said, “There is a way to do it better – find it.”